What happens when prep athletes take off their uniforms?
The same black males who are beloved heroes on schools’ playing fields can be treated as violent trespassers off of them. Between being a celebrated superhero and a profligate thug, black students just need to be seen – as human.
Last week, Jackie Robinson West became the first all black Little League team to win the American title and to advance to Little League World Series. My heart raced like my sons played on Jackie Robinson West or faster than a Mo’ne Davis’ fastball. Davis, 13, also starred in the same tournament and had me wanting to #throwlikeagirl. As a former prep and collegiate athlete, I know the personal as well as community fantasies and joy athletics generate. Likewise, I cheered excessively for Jackie Robinson West and Mo’ne.
My plaudits may have been symptoms of my need to exhale from the previous two weeks of depressing Ferguson, Missouri coverage. My raucous applause may have expressed society’s unhealthy exalting of black athletes in sports. In a more optimistic light, I might have cheered for real amateur athletics and the incredible stories they almost always produce.
However, I’ve come to believe that my jubilation for those particular young baseball players expresses a deeper need for validation. I rooted because I want black lives to matter. I need some recognition of my and my peers’ humanity. But I know that I shouldn’t look for this type of validation from sports – especially prep or collegiate athletics. The reality is my sons can very easily be adored for his play on an athletic team and be preyed upon during his way home. Away from an athletic fields, kids apparently lose their cuteness.
I’d rather not have the fear of my sons being killed by police than have some glory with being sports stars. I’d rather they be valued citizens than superheroes.
The killing of Michael Brown has prompted a national conversation on policing in America, but it’s not just the police that have negative attitudes of blacks. We should ask: Who are police protecting? Police exercise public will. Certainly, police officers are part of the public, but they also serve the will of those deemed worthy of protection. I felt good about the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson West and Mo’ne, but being an athlete won’t necessarily make them citizens of value.
Athletic accomplishment probably inflates a sense of belonging. Being a sports hero makes you superhuman – not human. Race matters. Superman transformed into Clark Kent. When a black student athlete removes his uniform, he becomes Black Man. At best an athletic uniform provides a temporary visa contingent on athletic ability and utility.
What happens to black lives when the uniforms are off is what really matters. The boys of Jackie Robinson West will eventually remove their uniforms and walk the streets of Chicago. They’ll eventually drive and shop. Don’t have the baseball players of Jackie Robinson West make sophomoric mistakes of stealing, fighting, selling drugs or going to get snacks, which for many provide justification for fatal force. Mo’ne will grow up and look for the same opportunities as her male counterparts. She may ask for help like Renisha McBride. In other words, don’t let these sports heroes become human.
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The accolades for Jackie Robinson West and Mo’ne Davis don’t offer metaphors or evidence for how most Americans view black children. ESPN writer Melissa Isaacson penned Mo’ne Davis’ Impact Reverberates Far Past Williamsport. No, America is comfortable cheering black athletes. Black brilliance on the athletic fields is nothing new, and we should all act as if it happens every day because it does. In the midst of historic cheers for black athleticism, we’ve built policies that have led to the disproportionate jailing, killing and expelling of black people.
And people of color have come to hail any brilliance that rises through the tilted odds of discrimination, prejudiced policing, under-resourced schools and biased laws. People of color have an extreme willingness to celebrate victories yet have a deep humility to know we’re problems. This oscillation enrages, yet it instills temerity to take a stand.
The students of Jackie Robinson West are simply amazing. However, I just want students to have the freedom to be human.
Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).